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Painted Poetry or Poetic Painting

The unique genre of haiga in Japanese ink painting

Within the rich tradition of Japanese ink painting the painted image and written word have always been interrelated. The artistic training included both writing beautiful calligraphic characters, as well as painting various themes and subjects with minimal strokes. Painted ink poems has evolved as a unique artistic format that has come to be known as haiga.

What is haiga?

Combining the three arts of calligraphy, painting and poetry, haiga is a unique form of Japanese artistic expression. It is a composition of a painted image and an inscribed three lines poem, known as haiku. Hai as in haiku poem, and ga for picture, thus haiga- 'haiku picture'. Haiga aesthetic intends to convey a moment in time that has captivated the poet’s heart and mind, giving it expression with few strokes of ink-brush on paper.

Such haiku painting developed from the 17th century in Japan, out of a long tradition of hand written poems and paintings, which evolved earlier in the Heian and Kamakura periods (791-1336). But it is only in the middle of the 19th century that the term itself came to be used to signify an artistic genre when it appeared in a block-print album by Watanabe Kazan (1793-1841) called ‘Album of Kazan’s haiga’ (Kazan haigafu).

The affinity between painted images and written words is Chinese in origin. In a colophon attached to a scroll, dated to the Tang dynasty (618-906), it stated the three arts of calligraphy, painting and poetry, to be considered by the emperor, as the ‘The three perfections’ (san chueh) and were highly regarded. To follow on, during the Sung dynasty (960-1279), both calligraphy and painting, were two of the arts known by Neo-Confucian scholars as 'The four accomplishments’ (kinkishoga) - painting, poetry, music and gō (or chess). They were valued as part of the stature and standard of a person’s capabilities.

This influence was transplanted to Japan, and mastership of word and image was developed and cultivated from as early as the 10th century. The belief that handwriting reveals the inner virtue of the writer was a source of emphasis both in poetry and literature such as in the famous Tales of Genji.

From waka to haiku poetry

Poetry was practiced by aristocratic class of emperors, courtiers and court ladies, as well as by Buddhist monks. Known as waka (or tanka) poems, they were most popular in the Heian and Kamakura eras. These court poetry were written to a meter of 31 syllables with a rhythm of 5-7-5-7-7.

By the 15th century it had become popular to compose poetry by groups of poets working together, making chains of waka poems, called renga, keeping to the rhythm of 5-7-5 then 7-7 syllables and repeating it. Each poet added another layer of meaning to the chain, which could continue for hundreds of lines. Eventually each link became a format in itself, especially the 5-7-5 syllable poems, which was the beginning of haiku.

Haiku, emerged from an interaction between the new popular, largely urban commoner and samurai-based cultures that came to the fore in the 17th century, and the residual classical official courtly poetry tradition, which haiku transformed into a contemporary language and form.

It was different from court poetry, which was restricted to the literate intellectual class who mainly used natural imagery to express emotions, often related to love, its joys and sorrows. Haiku evolved when education and cultural experience became more widespread, drawing less from romantic notions, it infused humour and insight into life with a lack of pretension. The shift from court poetry to haiku influenced the shift from poem-painting to haiga. The first was detailed, elegant, accurate and refined in style, while the latter was free and minimal, using expressive brush strokes.

Now, lets look together at two quite different haiga examples:

'Melon Blossom'

In ‘Melon Blossom’, the viewer first takes in the visual image, followed by reading the poem. The making of haiga starts the other way around; usually the haiku is put together first, even if not finally inscribed until the visual image is brushed in. Matsuo Bashō, the most distinguished Japanese poet, presents here his talent and control of the three arts. Mostly painted in soft colours, the black ink marks of the melon’s branch and leaves lend a contrast to the work, giving it tenacity and balance. Resembling the calligraphy lines, they shift the viewer’s attention from the bottom left of the composition to the top right of the poem.

'Neither to evening

Nor to morning does it belong -

The melon blossom.'

'Melon Blossom' / Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694) / Hanging scroll, 32.8 x 48.5cm. Ink and watercolour on paper

The poem is written in a fluent, balanced grass (sōsho) script. Also known as ‘reed handwriting characters’ (ashide-moji), grass script uses kanji and kana characters to form a particular style, favourite by calligraphers and artists alike as words became image. The calligraphy frames the composition and brings attention back into the painting. The signature and seal on the left side nicely balances the whole.

Affinity with nature is created in a sensual way, smelling the blossom, sensing the daylight or darkness of night (nor evening nor morning). Bashō presents harmonious existence within the natural world, rather then standing in awe of it, as a philosophical idea, as was the case with court poetry of the past. He involves the viewer by revealing an inner meaning and perhaps his own feelings as well.

Linkage between the painting and the poem is made by the melon’s image and the melon blossom associating with each other. Big and round on the outside, it is empty inside, drawing attention to the undefined illusive moment of blossoming in contrast to the grand blossom itself. A fragment of a bigger scene, the fact of being ‘unfinished’, is a virtue of the poem, rather then a fault. In keeping with the nature of haiga, it allows the viewer to be involved and complete the story/image in their own mind.

With the strong, solid calligraphy balances, the background is left open, empty and unformed. It remains a mystery. Haiku evokes rather than states; haiga minimalist information suggests a scene, a place, and a form. Using hints and sensitive details, it echoes into the viewer’s perception and understanding.


'Through the ages

Rising above the mountains -

Tonight's moon.'

'Moon' / Inoue Shirō (1742-1812) / 31 x 50cm. Ink on paper

Inoue Shirō, a follower of poet painter Yosa Buson, was a doctor by profession from Nagoya whose highly simplified work is unique. One fluent brush line marks a whole mountain, with a changing tonality of colour; perhaps like ‘the ages of time’ in the poem, it flows to meet the haiku on the right top part of the haiga.

Where is the moon then ? The calligraphy itself changes tonalities, like moonlight shadows, and the character for moon, tsuki, in Japanese, is somewhat elongated and isolated from the rest of the poem, like a moon rising above the mountain.

The empty space, which is most of the haiga, can be considered as whiteness of snow, or as darkness of night, or as reflected light of the rising moon. The suggestive language of word and image corresponds to the empty space, giving the viewer’s freedom to meditate on the images proposed.

Simplicity is an important character of haiga. Executed with monochrome ink, it is sometimes described as a rough or ‘abbreviated sketch’ (ryakuga). The visual image seem to be quickly executed, and it stands at the borderline of literal representation. The painting- poem presents an exact combination of minimal information of the mountain’s silhouette and the calligraphy, transferring the essence of nighttime and the atmosphere of the rising moon.

Haiga aesthetic and artists

The way a poem is written and the image that is associate with it, creates a new imaginary world. A world greater then each art form in itself. Making more then anything, a new rhythm and pace, a dwelling space invitation to the viewer.

The achievement of complementary or confronting connections, or even linkage by absence of word or image, between painting and calligraphy to evoke the poem’s atmosphere, is part of the virtuosity of haiga artists.

Haiga is a lyrical, expressive fine art. It is the result of a myriad of influences. Drawing from Chinese aesthetics, and the traditional Heian court poetry, it was also impacted by Zen thought, and ideas of traveling poets. And so those who practiced haiga were equally diverse in styles. Men and women artists, poets, painters, travellers, Buddhist nuns and Zen priests, all worked within the genre.

Although not as easy to define or categorise, haiga aesthetic has evolved with a stylistic criteria of abbreviation, selectivity, and simplicity along with the corresponding minimalist brushwork of calligraphy and painting. It heightens the awareness of nature, including human nature, with a hint of a season or other specific time. Using everyday scenery as subjects, and encompassing the senses, haiga leaves empty space for the viewer to engage in a process of a suggested art rather than a confronting one.

In conclusion

In haiga we can see how the painting amplify the poem's emotion and add layers of context and insight. It offers a slight change of focus, a shift in attention and so invites us back to the inner appreciation of beauty. Rather then seeking it outside, reflection of the inner life might resonate in the beauty of external things, but it is essentially evoked from within.

The different intensity of atmosphere and feelings, from solitude to longing, to awe-inspiring joy and humour, expressed in a variety of styles and ways, makes haiga a truly unique genre of artistic expression.

Learn More

> For the complete essay on haiga with a selection of 5 more artworks, discussed by Talia, you are invited to subscribe to ArtBrush library - HERE

In the library you will also find various essays relating to Japanese art history and aesthetics, as well as notes referring to the practice of ink painting, recommended resources and artist contemplation.

> For an in-depth painting course tutorial 'The Four Noble Ones' you are invited to join ArtBrush Foundation course

> For individual painting tutorials please check the link HERE

> Recommended further read - Haiga, Takebe Sōchō and the Haiku-Painting tradition / Addiss Stephen and Fumiko Y. Yamamoto, exhibition catalogue. You can get your copy on this affiliate link >

Purchase on Amazon HERE

> Recommended further studies - In depth FREE, U-tube recorded series of lectures on 'The three perfections' in Japanese art history, by Dr. John Carpenter- Japanese art curator at the MET, and Talia former Japanese art history professor you are invited to view - HERE

* Waka image - Calligraphy by emperor Go-Yōzeione one of a set of 12. Written over decorated paper in gold and silver powders and cut foil, colour, and ink. MET museum collection.

** Portrait image - Matsuo Bashō by Katsushika Hokusai. Woodblock print from Hokusai Manga.



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About the Author

Japanese Ink Painting Instructor & Artist, Talia Lehavi - Standing with a brush in front of Notes on Pine collection in Mallorca Studio

Talia LeHavi is a professional artist and a certified teacher of Japanese ink painting. Exhibiting both in the UK and internationally, she is known for her cross-disciplinary paintings, prints and ceramic tiles.

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